Is Your Cat’s Yellow Glow Contagious? Uncovering Feline Jaundice

What is jaundice in cats?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a condition in cats where there is a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment that is formed from the breakdown of red blood cells. Normally, the liver filters out bilirubin and it is excreted in bile. But when there is a problem with this process, bilirubin accumulates and leads to yellow discoloration of the skin, gums, and eyes in cats (PetMD, 2021).

Some key facts about jaundice in cats:

  • It is characterized by yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes
  • Caused by elevated bilirubin levels due to liver disease, bile duct obstruction, or red blood cell destruction
  • Symptoms include lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting, and yellow membranes/skin
  • Diagnosis involves blood tests, imaging, and sometimes biopsy of the liver
  • Treatment depends on underlying cause but may include IV fluids, medications, supplements, and dietary changes

Jaundice develops when bilirubin builds up faster than the cat’s liver can break it down and excrete it. It indicates there is an underlying problem with the liver, gallbladder, blood cells, or bile ducts (VCA Hospitals, 2022). Without treatment, excess bilirubin can be toxic, so jaundice requires prompt veterinary attention.




Is feline jaundice contagious?

Feline jaundice itself is not contagious and cannot spread between cats. However, some of the underlying causes of jaundice in cats can be infectious diseases that are contagious between cats. According to Veterinary Practice Today, infectious diseases that can lead to jaundice include Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), Feline Panleukopenia Virus, and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV).

FIP in particular is highly contagious between cats. It is spread through feces, urine, saliva, or respiratory secretions of an infected cat. Kittens and cats with weakened immune systems are most at risk. There is no cure for FIP, and it is often fatal. FeLV is similarly spread through bodily secretions and can compromise the immune system, making a cat prone to jaundice. Routine vaccination helps prevent FeLV transmission between cats.

While the underlying infectious diseases may spread between cats, the jaundice itself does not transmit from one cat to another. However, since jaundice often indicates serious illness in cats, it is recommended to isolate jaundiced cats from other pets until the cause is diagnosed and treated by a veterinarian.

Causes of jaundice in cats

There are several potential causes of jaundice in cats, but the most common are related to liver disease, red blood cell destruction, and bile duct obstruction.

Liver disease is a frequent cause of jaundice in cats. Conditions like hepatic lipidosis, cholangiohepatitis, or liver cancer can impair the liver’s ability to process and excrete bilirubin, leading to a buildup in the bloodstream. This results in yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes.

Hemolytic anemia, which is the destruction of red blood cells, can also cause jaundice. When red blood cells break down too quickly, the liver can’t process all the bilirubin fast enough. This excess bilirubin circulates and causes jaundice.

Obstruction of the bile ducts, often due to gallstones or cancer, is another potential cause. When bile can’t drain properly from the liver, it backs up into the bloodstream. The bilirubin builds up and causes yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes.

While less common, other causes like pancreatitis, infections, and toxins can also lead to jaundice in cats. Diagnostic testing is needed to determine the underlying cause.

Diagnosing jaundice

A veterinarian will diagnose jaundice in cats through a physical exam, blood tests, and imaging. During the physical exam, the vet will check the color of the cat’s gums and inner eyelids for a yellowish discoloration that indicates jaundice. They will also feel the cat’s abdomen to check for an enlarged liver that could be causing jaundice.

Blood tests can help confirm jaundice by looking for an increase in bilirubin levels. A complete blood count may show signs of infection or inflammation, and a chemistry panel can assess liver enzymes for indications of liver disease. Bile acids tests can help determine if there is a problem with bile flow.

Imaging such as x-rays or ultrasound allow the vet to visualize the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts. They can look for blockages, gallstones, tumors, or other issues that may be disrupting bile flow and causing jaundice. An ultrasound-guided liver biopsy may be recommended to evaluate liver cell damage and determine the underlying cause of jaundice.

These diagnostic steps allow the vet to identify the cause and severity of jaundice in order to recommend the appropriate treatment. Prompt diagnosis and care is important, as jaundice can potentially lead to liver failure if left untreated. (Source)

Treating jaundice

The main goals of treating jaundice in cats are addressing the underlying cause and providing supportive care. The specific treatment will depend on what’s causing the jaundice.

If there is an obstruction in the bile ducts, surgery may be needed to remove the blockage and allow bile to flow normally again. Medications can also help treat infections, pancreatitis, cancer or other conditions leading to jaundice (1).

Supportive care is also important. This may include:

  • Fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration
  • Medications to control vomiting
  • Liver support supplements
  • A special diet easier for the liver to process
  • Monitoring blood work

The prognosis depends on the underlying cause and how quickly treatment begins. With aggressive treatment, many cats can recover fully from jaundice.

Preventing jaundice

There are some steps pet owners can take to help prevent jaundice in cats:

  • Avoid toxins – Keep cats away from toxic substances like antifreeze, lead, and certain plants that could damage their liver. Store chemicals and medications securely.
  • Regular vet visits – Annual exams allow vets to check for underlying issues and provide preventative care. Bloodwork helps detect problems early.
  • Vaccinations -Staying up to date on core vaccines helps prevent infectious diseases that could compromise the liver.
  • Parasite control – Preventing parasitic infections through flea/tick/heartworm medication lowers inflammation.
  • Quality diet – Feed a balanced commercial diet and avoid unhealthy table foods. Obesity stresses the liver.
  • Limit medications – Only give vet-approved drugs when necessary and at proper dosages.

While not every case is avoidable, these basic preventative care steps can help reduce a cat’s chances of developing jaundice and liver disorders.

Outlook for cats with jaundice

The prognosis for cats with jaundice depends on the underlying cause. Some diseases causing jaundice can be fatal if left untreated, while others have a good prognosis for full recovery.

Diseases like cholangiohepatitis and liver cancer tend to have a poorer prognosis, while bacterial infections have a better chance of responding to treatment. Jaundice caused by toxins or medications also has a more hopeful outlook if treated promptly.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, “The prognosis is dependent upon the underlying cause. Some diseases causing icterus are fatal, but others have a good prognosis for full recovery.”

With early diagnosis and proper treatment, many cats can recover fully from jaundice. However, a late diagnosis or advanced disease may lead to irreversible liver damage or failure, which can be fatal. Consulting a veterinarian as soon as jaundice symptoms appear gives a cat the best chance of overcoming this condition.

Caring for a cat with jaundice

Caring for a cat with jaundice requires special attention and treatment at home. Some key aspects of caring for a jaundiced cat include:

Special diet: Cats with jaundice often need a special veterinary prescription diet that is gentle on the liver. This may include a low-protein, highly digestible formula. Follow your vet’s recommendations closely.

Monitoring for complications: Look out for symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, dark urine, weakness, or lethargy. These could indicate a worsening condition. Track intake and output. Notify your vet promptly about any concerning signs.

Medications: Give all medications as directed by your veterinarian. These may include liver protectants, vitamins, or immune system boosters. Do not stop medications unless advised by your vet.

Low stress: Provide a calm, soothing environment for your cat during recovery. Limit disruptions and keep noise levels low. Soft bedding, warm spaces, and gentle handling will help.

Follow-up care: Take your cat to all follow-up vet appointments. Bloodwork helps track jaundice recovery. Your vet may adjust treatments based on your cat’s progress.

With attentive home care and treatment, many cats can recover fully from jaundice. Monitor your cat closely and work closely with your veterinarian during this period.

Risks of Jaundice in Cats

Jaundice can pose serious risks to a cat’s health if left untreated. Some of the main risks of feline jaundice include:

Liver Failure – Jaundice is often caused by liver disease or liver failure in cats. If the underlying liver issue is not treated, the jaundice can worsen and lead to complete liver failure. This can be fatal if a liver transplant is not an option.

Neurological Problems – High levels of bilirubin, the yellow pigment that causes jaundice, can cross the blood-brain barrier in cats. This can lead to neurological symptoms such as seizures, disorientation, and coma. Prompt treatment is needed to prevent permanent brain damage.

According to PetMD, studies show that cats with severe jaundice have a guarded to grave prognosis. However, the outlook improves significantly if the underlying cause can be identified and treated early on1. That’s why it’s critical to have a jaundiced cat evaluated by a vet right away to diagnose and address the cause.

When to seek emergency care

In some cases, jaundice can rapidly worsen and become a medical emergency. You should seek emergency veterinary care if your cat shows any of the following symptoms:

  • Rapid onset of jaundice symptoms over a few hours or 1-2 days
  • Extreme lethargy or weakness
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Coma

These signs indicate your cat’s condition is quickly worsening and their liver and other organs may be failing. Immediate treatment is needed to stabilize your cat and determine the underlying cause of the jaundice. The longer you wait to seek emergency care, the lower your cat’s chances of recovery. Even if your cat seems mildly jaundiced, rapid progression is possible, so don’t hesitate to go to an emergency vet clinic if your cat seems very ill.

Cats with a rapid onset of jaundice require hospitalization, intravenous fluids, nutrition support, and medications. Their bilirubin levels will be monitored closely. Once stabilized, testing can determine if there is an underlying condition requiring surgery or long-term treatment. With aggressive emergency care and treatment of the underlying problem, many cats can recover fully from rapid-onset jaundice. However, delaying emergency care even by a few hours can drastically reduce the chance of survival.

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